Monday, August 3, 2015

Upper-South Roadtrip

In June, I went to Kentucky, again, to read the AP US History exam. I decided to drive this year. I guess you could say I'm a driving person. A few weeks before this trip I experienced a life event. Yeah, let's go with that, "life event." It wasn't one of those times when you have to let your employer know that the number of deductions on your taxes has changed, but a "life event" nonetheless. I suppose I should say that no one has cancer and no one died. I was ready to leave town.

On my way to Kentucky, I stopped in Cleveland to see one of my best friends from high school. After the reading in Louisville, I ventured to Nashville, Asheville, Durham, and finally, D.C. to see my other best friend from high school. In all, I logged 2200 miles. I listened to two audio books (Marc Maron's Attempting Normal and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl), six Stern shows, a Phish show or two, and countless podcasts. I have a fascination with seeing the US, or anywhere for that matter, by car. I imagine that some day, when we run out of oil (suuure we'll figure something else out...right?), the old-fashioned road trip will be an experience of the past. When I can make a road trip happen, especially to places I haven't explored before, I have to go. 

On the way to Cleveland I stopped, very early in the AM, at Fallingwater. I can't believe I had never visited before. The notion that Fallingwater is in the state I live in has taunted me for years. But, a four and a half hour drive away, this architectural gem is not exactly close to Philly. After Fallingwater I stopped at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. They have three permanent James Turrell installations that are worth a stop, amongst the other contemporary art exhibits.

After a night in Cleveland I drove down to Louisville. I don't have much new to report about Louisville. I finally made it to Hammerheads and Holy Grale. Hammerheads is such a dive, I have to love it. It's the kind of dive that when you leave, you smell like the fryer. The tacos were awesome. Also, Holy Grale is a beautiful spot and the food was great. Otherwise, Rye remains the favorite spot to drink. The food wasn't nearly as good as last year. 
On my way to Nashville I detoured to Willett Distillery for a tour. I wanted to see a smaller production distillery and this was certainly it. Willett seems microscopic compared to Heaven Hill up the road. I bought a Two Year Old and Three Year Old Single Barrel Rye for my brother and continued south.

When I was planning the road trip, Nashville seemed like a natural next stop. I didn't have any expectations about the place. But, everything I ate in Nashville was perfect. There wasn't one miss, and well, I ate quite a bit for one person in 24 hours. I started at Mas Tacos Por Favor with chicken pozole and pork tacos. The soup was the highlight: tender chicken, roasted corn, avocado, cherry tomato, cotija.

After the tacos I went to Barista Parlor for espresso. The macchiato was excellent and I couldn't resist a warm, homemade PB&J pop-tart. I mean, c'mon, pop-tart? When was the last time you had a pop-tart? (Okay, I had one a few days prior during the reading's last snack break; it was a moment of weakness.) To use academic language, this pop-tart "moved beyond" the standard pop-tart, as the crust was more croissant like, amazing.

After taking a nap during an insane thunderstorm, I ventured out for dinner. Honestly, I was so full, I wasn't even sure I could eat dinner. But, I'm glad I made it out. I went to Rolf and Daughters for an impeccable meal. This restaurant reminded me of Russ and Daughters in Brooklyn (not simply because of the name similarity) and Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. The meal was unusual, surprising, creative, and well-executed. 

Side note: After three years back in Philly, I'm at another food standstill. Save three spots, I may need to be done with eating in Philly (and, two of the three places are actually in Collingswood, NJ). 

Anyway, it's rare to be entirely satisfied by a meal. Rolf and Daughters was beyond. I ate three dishes; really, I didn't want to eat the third, but everything was so perfect, I decided to try one more dish. 
1. Diver Scallop, seaweed, iceplant, yuzu kosho. 
2. Beef tartare, sunflower, barley, egg yolk 
3. Farro gemelli, hen of the woods, spigarello, sarvecchio, lemon. 
Their use of succulents and strange herbs I had never heard of was quite fun.


I'm not sure if a trip to Nashville would be complete without hot chicken. I really mean that. I don't know if it's a requirement, but I think so. On my way out of town, I went to Prince's Hot Chicken exactly when it opened. I agonized over how hot to order it: regular, medium, hot, or extra hot. I read Yelps, texted friends to text locals, listened to Marc Maron lament over the pain of ordering hot, and chatted with the friendly lady taking my order. I went with medium and found it to be not hot at all. I forget that my tolerance for spicy is probably higher than most. I was disappointed that it wasn't hot enough for me, but it was the best fried chicken that I have ever, ever had. The kind of "best ever" that makes you never want to eat that specific type of food anywhere else. 

The tiny restaurant was already full, so I ate in my car. It was over 90 degrees that day. I sat in my car, in the parking lot, A/C blasting, eating a fried half chicken with my hands. No shame. I did it. And I could not stop myself. (Well, maybe some moralistic sense of shame about eating meat.)
I also bought the hummingbird cake from the nice woman who sells cakes inside Prince's. Again, hummingbird cake?! Had to. Not something we see in the North: banana pineapple spice cake with frosting, sprinkles, walnuts, and a maraschino cherry. It was a very moist cake and I did eat that with some sense of shame as I drove east from Nashville.
Without a doubt, Nashville was the high point for food on this trip. My next stop was the biggest disappointment: dinner at Blackberry Farm in east Tennessee. I can't even go into it. I wouldn't know where, in a seven-course dinner of calamity, to begin. The grounds were beautiful, I'll give it that. The rest of the "experience" left me angry and jilted.
The next stop was Asheville. I had always heard that it was a cool-hippie-mountain-town. My thoughts about Asheville may be colored by a rather dodgy AirBnb stay, a lingering police car observing me go into said AirBnb because a guy was walking down the street, and the sound of gunshots late into the night. I left that AirBnb very early and went to yoga. Afterwards, I had a nice breakfast at Over Easy Cafe, did some thrifting, and hit the road for Durham. Maybe Asheville needs another look. It has a burgeoning hipster presence and a very cute art deco downtown. But, I felt a little claustrophobic in those mountains. 

Next, I went to Durham. I heard good things about the town and had always wanted to visit. I drove through Duke. Whoa. Country club college! Duke is the beautiful fantasy college I always imagined. If I had visited Duke, I don't know that I would have ended up in West Philly for college. 

Anyway, I drove over to Chapel Hill, in an effort to figure out the difference between Durham and Chapel Hill. Friendly people at the back bar at Lantern (not great food) informed me of the difference: "Chapel Hill is a college town. Durham is a city." Okay, sure. Apparently, Durham has "arts and culture." Chapel Hill did feel like a suburban college town, while Durham has some amount of authenticity to it. The only highlight of this stop was Scratch Bakery. Buttermilk donuts and pecan sandies. Yes.

After several days of eating for two (not in the pregnant way), I was tired of food. I stopped in Richmond to practice yoga and kept going to DC. I went to the excellent Peregrine Espresso to wait for my friends to be done with their real jobs. Kindly, my friends gave me a few choices for dinner. On the list was a Japanese spot, Izakaya Seki. After many days of eating fried food (duh, Gina, its the Midwest and the South), Japanese was the clear choice. I wanted something simple, clean, and pure. The three of us handily made our way through the menu. This was a perfect end to a solid road trip.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Vancouver is Everything I Thought it Would Be

Well, I started this post last July. I'll finish it in brief, as I have new adventures to recount. I had wanted to visit Vancouver since I was about thirteen. In eighth grade, I became obsessed with The X-Files (and, okay everyone who knows me, David Duchovny). I learned that The X-Files was filmed in the Vancouver area. Eventually, the show moved filming to LA. With that move, I would argue, the show lost a portion of its shadowy mystery and allure. While my summertime trip lacked the tempestuous, misty landscapes of The X-Files, it was beyond beautiful. Again, the combination of mountains, water, and cityscape takes the day. I am eager to return to Vancouver as soon as possible. In addition to being a captivating, "cool," city, the food was excellent. Apparently, I ate my way through this town. Looking back at these photos, it seems that I was determined to eat every genre of food. I'll give a quick rundown. 

Lunch at Hawksworth Restaurant after the Amtrak ride up from Seattle. Lingcod!

Two stops at Revolver: first a macchiato, then a cappuccino. The tastes of these beverages remain engrained in my espresso memory. Nothing quite lives up to them.

Macaroons from Theirry Chocolate because well, yeah, candy.


Soup dumplings at Dinesty Dumpling House. They were excellent and rival any soup dumpling I've had in Philly. Right, that doesn't say much, but they were delicious.

A sandwich from Rosemary Rocksalt before a drive to Squamish.

The best ice cream I've ever had at Rain or Shine Ice Cream: brown-butter snickerdoodle and a freshly made (still warm) waffle cone. I have a soft spot for snickerdoodles.

A ferry ride to Bowen Island for a tuna bowl (and wild foxglove!) at Shika Provisions Bowen.

Great beers at 33 Acres Brewing Co.

Donuts from Cartems Donuterie.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Day in Seattle

I visited Seattle briefly a few years ago. Instantly, I fell in love with the mountain-water-cityscape combination. My post-marathon visit to Seattle was also brief. I wanted to see and eat as much as possible. Since my mother hadn't been there before, we had a few touristy items to cross off the list. We went to Pike Place Market, the Seattle Central Public Library, Pioneer Square, Olympic Sculpture Park, and the Space Needle. We stayed not far from downtown in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. I really enjoyed the location and vibe of the area: a cleaner, prettier Northern Liberties/Fishtown combination.

In our short visit to Seattle, we did manage to eat at quite a few places. The highlights were perfect meals at Sitka & Spruce and Staple & Fancy Mercantile. I also managed to enjoy a brief interlude at Taylor Shellfish Farms.

I had a fantastic experience at Sitka & Spruce from start to finish. I made the reservation over the phone a few weeks in advance. The person who answered the phone (also the person who waited on us) seemed genuinely excited that I had called and was visiting. I feel as though I rarely have a positive interaction when calling a restaurant.

Sitka & Spruce is a gorgeous space. The restaurant itself is tucked inside a multi-use space with a coffee shop, sandwich counter, flower shop, wine bar and home goods shop. It was slightly confusing, but the entire space is well curated. 

As with any full day of eating, you need an early lunch. The bread from Columbia City Bakery was amazing; so was the butter. It is not a stretch to suggest that it was better than any baguette being made in the Philadelphia region. 

I started with a cup of broth made with pork, chicken, fish, and seaweed. A weird choice. I've been interested in broths since I ate at Eleven Madison Park more than a year ago. The whole duck for two begins with a cup of broth. It was the essence of duck. Fork does the same thing for their whole duck. Anyway, the broth was a flavorful, warming addition to the meal. 

As an entree I had raw Quilleutte salmon, pickled seabeans, konbu and mizuna. The salmon was velvety, the pickled seabeans perfectly punctuated the dish, and the greens were a lovely complement. I wish I could have eaten more here, but this was only the beginning.

After a quick rest, we were back out and about. We stopped at Taylor Shellfish Farms with the hope of finding Dungeness crabs. I have a long family history of eating Dungeness crabs. They have achieved the aura of a higher power in my family: "Oh, you're going to Seattle/San Francisco, make sure you eat some Dungeness!" A family friend from Seattle visited us each summer. He packed Dungeness crabs in ice, took them on the plane, and prepared them for us the same day. As a little kid, I had only known the painstaking, yet rewarding, work required to enjoy Maryland crabs. My ten-year-old mind was blown away by Dungeness. So much meat for so little work? It didn't even make sense. 

Alas, Taylor Shellfish Farms was out of them in the late-afternoon hour. The delivery truck had arrived, but it would take an hour to prep them. While my mother was sorely disappointed, I ordered half-dozen west coast oysters, a live spot prawn, and geoduck sashimi. In a day of eating, I barely even count raw seafood as eating. The oysters tasted far better than eating west coast oysters on the east coast, the spot prawn was pretty cool, as they break it apart (kill it) at the table, and the geoduck was texturally great, while approaching the sweetness of a raw scallop.

After a walk to the Sculpture Park we went to dinner at Staple & Fancy. I
chose this restaurant based on combination of Chowhound, Yelp, and the difficult task of finding restaurants that are open on Monday. Thankfully, my mother was up for the tasting menu. I had to do some double eating, but for the most part she ate everything. In fact, she said it was the best meal of her life, besides Zeppoli

For $50 a person it was a steal. Between the quality and the quantity, I could not have been happier with the meal: salmon bruschetta, seared tuna, coppa, fried oysters, caesar salad, asparagus soup, buffalo mozzarella, rigatoni with guanciale, hanger steak, ricotta cheesecake. It was an onslaught of perfectly prepared food. I can't quite liken it to any restaurant in Philadelphia. Rather, I can't liken it to any restaurant in Philadelphia without writing something like, "what X tries to be...with less salt/cheese/butter." In fact, everything I ate on the west coast was less heavy handed than most of the food you find in Philly. After this brief stay in Seattle, we were off to Vancouver.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Seward's Folly

Almost a month ago I went to Anchorage to run a marathon on the summer solstice. I'm trying to run a marathon in all 50 states, so I thought I'd visit the nicer states first. Also, I've wanted to go to Alaska since I watched Insomniac with Dave Attell in 2003. It seemed like a strange place. Then, when I was in grad school in Western Mass, I watched every episode of Northern Exposure on DVD. I had to visit this very far away place.

I didn't have high hopes for food in Anchorage. Reviews of the best places on Yelp and Chowhound all ended with something like, "...considering it's Alaska, this place wasn't bad." After a disappointing sushi night, I decided to focus on carbo loading and eat in. 

I think this would have been one of my favorite marathons if it hadn't rained for the first 8-10 miles. In this photo I'm thinking, "It's raining. I really don't want to get out of the car. Why am I running another marathon?" But, my mother and I had made the trip to Alaska. The marathon was uphill the first half and downhill the second half. It cleared up a bit, but remained overcast. I ran a far-from-PR negative split. I enjoyed it and could walk the next day. After running nine marathons in nearly five years, it does become easier.

Anyway, enough marathon talk. After the marathon we drove down to Seward for a marine cruise. I was very excited to visit Seward, as I had written a paper about a woman, Queen Silver, who visited Seward in the early 20th century. I thought she was going to be the subject of my dissertation, but alas, no. It was fascinating to think about her visit to Seward in the teens. 

The guy cleaning up the trash on the touristy marine cruise asked me what I had planned for the solstice. I mentioned driving back to Anchorage and he said, "Oh, Anchorage. Go to Humpy's and have the halibut tacos and an Alaska Pale for me." I decided to follow up on that recommendation the next day.

The tacos look like a giant mess. Who doesn't love the 1990's squeeze bottle sauce presentation? It was halibut season and the tacos were the best food I ate in Alaska. I was not even offended by the flour tortillas. Looking back, everything in Anchorage seemed like it was from the 1990s: the architecture, the cars, the signage.

I also decided upon Alaska because my mother wanted to visit. Since it will likely be the only time she ventures to Alaska, I asked her if she wanted to take a plane to land on a glacier in Denali National Park. Denali doesn't seem like the type of park you can visit for one day. There's a whole bus system that (rightly so) limits vehicular traffic in the park. Sitting on a bus all day, after driving 4.5 hours, the day before a marathon, seemed like a miserable idea. Thus, I found the glacier landing. I would never do something like this. But, for my mom, I went with it. It was by far the best part of the trip. Landing on a glacier, with a view of Mt. McKinley, defies words. I felt like a giddy five-year-old when I stepped off the plane. It was other-worldly gorgeous.

I'm not sure that I would go back to Alaska. It is truly beautiful. It is truly far away. I might want to visit Fairbanks and drive north to the Arctic Circle or see the Northern Lights, but as long as I live on the east coast, Alaska is very far away folly.